Monday, June 11, 2012

SS Nenana - The last steamboat to Fairbanks

The SS Nenana is one of the premier attractions at Pioneer Park. She is the largest sternwheel steamboat ever built west of the Mississippi and was commissioned by the Alaska Railroad to transport passengers and freight on the Lower Yukon River.

Designed by marine architect W.C. Nickum, the boat was prefabricated in Seattle and shipped in pieces to the town of Nenana, where the Berg Shipbuilding Co. assembled her. Launched in May 1933, she is 237 feet long, with a 42-foot beam (width), and fully loaded drew about 3.5-feet of water. Her gross weight is about 1,000 tons — she could carry 300 tons of freight. The Nenana pushed up to six barges on the Yukon River, but was limited to one on the winding Tanana.

The boat is a packet (designed to carry passengers and freight). In addition to the cargo deck, there is a “saloon” deck with accommodations for 48 passengers. Above that is the “Texas” deck, where crew quarters are; and atop that is the pilot house.

Charles Adams (of Lavelle Young fame — the first commercial steamboat to navigate the Chena River in 1901) was her first captain. When Charles retired in 1942, his nephew, Howard Adams, became the Nenana’s captain. The boat operated on a regular basis until 1952, making 1,600mile round trips between Nenana and Marshall every two weeks during the summer. Occasionally she was sent upriver as far as Fort Yukon.

The Nenana’s last year of service with the ARR was 1953. Airplanes had stolen all her passengers, and more efficient boats were replacing steamers. Yutana Barge Line leased the Nenana in 1954 for a single season. In 1957 a group from Fairbanks purchased the boat and brought her up the Tanana and Chena rivers to her final home. Howard Adams was captain for the last voyage. That was the Nenana’s only trip to Fairbanks.

(The railroad bridge at Nenana (named the Mears Memorial Bridge) really sealed the fate of the Fairbanks waterfront, since the bridge’s low deck prevented steamboats from passing underneath. The SS Nenana’s stack had to be lowered to get under the bridge. Even then the boat only cleared the bottom of the bridge by six inches.)

The Nenana has gone through some major trauma and extensive modifications since arriving. Over the years the boilers and much of the cargo deck equipment were removed, the saloon deck was converted to a restaurant (I remember attending several Christmas parties there), and the Texas deck converted to a meeting room. During the 1967 flood the boat’s main deck was deliberately flooded so the boat would not float away.

The Fairbanks Historic Preservation Foundation began restoring the boat in 1987, and in 1989 she was designated a National Historic Landmark. Major restoration work has been completed, including undoing the modifications to the saloon and Texas decks and restoring them to their former glory. Much of the cargo deck is now filled with interpretive displays.

The SS Nenana is one the few remaining vintage sternwheelers in the country. She could have easily been lost without the foresight of the people who originally brought her to Fairbanks, and those who have worked so hard to restore and protect her.

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